The Four Ways We Teach Our Children to Lie


A mom recently told me she had been using praise to motivate her three-year-old daughter to stay dry through the night. If the little girl awoke each morning with a dry diaper, her mom would praise her. One particular morning the child apparently took off her diaper and brought it to her mom to show the great results and receive her praise. But later that morning, mom found the REAL diaper that was worn that night–hidden in the child’s bedroom and wet!

I don’t normally support praise, although the exception can be when working with toddlers and preschoolers. Praise can be effective when teaching something new that may be difficult for very young children to master. Praise can give them confidence and motivate them to cooperate with you. The acceptable form of praise in these cases is in expressing delight for your child’s accomplishment but avoiding labeling them as a good boy or girl. Adults must be cautious because the side effects of this praise can be motivation to do whatever it takes to get more. From the child’s perspective, having a caregiver express delight in something you have accomplished feels great and you usually want to get more.

We teach them to lie to get our approval
In the case above, the little girl loved the praise she was getting for her dry diaper in the morning and learned to hide the wet diaper to please her mother. Even though this example was about a young child, children of all ages learn quickly about getting our approval at all costs. The caregiver’s approval feels good and a child will do whatever he can to get it.

Children lie to protect themselves
My parents obtained their parenting tools from their parents. The penalty my siblings and I received for the C’s, D’s, and F’s on school papers was a whipping from a belt. Because my parents used fear to motivate us to perform, fear is what I felt as a child. To protect myself from what I feared most, I quickly learned how to change grades on papers, hide or destroy my work, or lie about the grades I received on assignments. I often think about where I might be today academically if my parents had responded differently.

Hopefully you are not using old tools our parents may have used on us. But think about how you respond to your children when their performance is not where you think it should be. How do you react emotionally and physically when they make mistakes, make poor decisions, or explore the world? If you yell, get angry, punish, or demonstrate other forms of disapproval, might you be teaching them to lie?

Parents force their children to be nice to others
Have you ever told your child to be nice to a playmate or relative, or forced them to say they’re sorry? Young children don’t always see other children as equals. The process of developing social skills takes time and patience. When one child is mean or disrespectful toward a sibling or playmate, it usually is an indication that they have had enough of the other child and it is time for a break or an end to the playtime. But parents usually admonish their child for the behavior and force their child to be nice. At that particular moment, the child may not have any warm feelings for the other child nor feel sorry in any way.

When I was a child I had an elderly relative I did not like. She smelled terrible and when we went to visit her my parents forced me to give her a hug. It was an excruciating experience and I hated having to go near her. Does this scenario sound familiar? Many of us probably had a similar experience because our parents expected us to show our respect. But at what cost?

Children learn from the example adults set
Your child runs to answer the ringing telephone as you shout out, “If it’s grandma, tell her that I’m not home.” You tell the ticket taker at the admission gate of the amusement park that your child is an age just under the price break so that you can save a few dollars. I know that I have been guilty myself of a few incidents where I taught my son or daughter to lie. One day my young daughter and I were returning home from a brief shopping trip to get some groceries we needed for dinner. When my daughter saw the ice cream vendor outside the supermarket, her pleading for a small treat pulled at my heartstrings. I caved to her request. I then taught my daughter to lie when I told her not to tell her mother when we got home. I knew that I would be scolded by my wife if she found out I had given our daughter a treat before dinner. It didn’t matter anyway. My cover was blown when my daughter walked into the house and said, “We had an ice cream at the store, Mommy.” By natural design children have a drive for honesty, but through modeling, training, and getting their needs met, they can easily learn to lie.

In my parenting classes I sometimes poll my participants about the top ten characteristics they want their children to have as an adult. The majority of the time, honesty ranks among the top three. Yet look at the things adults do that promote their children to lie. The mother who found the hidden wet diaper asked me what she should do about her three-year-old hiding it and lying to her. I told her that she should have revealed to her daughter that mommy had found that diaper and now knew that her little girl did not wake up dry.

In the book Nurture Shock (published by Twelve, 2009), authors Po Bryson and Ashley Merryman advise that lying is not just an innocent childhood trait. They believe that parents must let their children know that it is not okay to lie. If we don’t, the lying will progress throughout the child’s development years. How the parent lets the child know that lying is not okay is the most important factor. If done without a trace of punishment or anger, and instead with a demonstration of acceptance and unconditional love, the child will have less motivation to continue the lying. Her internal compass of integrity will develop naturally as it should.

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